Nieman fellowship: Personal statement

Note: I submitted this personal statement as part of my Nieman fellowship application in January 2012. When I applied, I didn’t know anyone who’d been a fellow, and had no idea what to expect or what was expected of me. If you’re in the same position, please feel free to get in touch with me (here or @ODitor on Twitter), or check out this chat about how to apply and what to do with a fellowship. Good luck!

I fell into an inconvenient romance with print in 1998, long after the golden days many of my colleagues describe, when they had expense reports and – oh, glory – time to work on long-range projects.

I stumbled into a two-credit copy editing class during my last semester of college, and every other interest fell away. I sent out dozens of resumes, begging for a chance on the strength of a cover letter and two clips from a student newspaper. When I finally landed a job in Forest City, N.C., I learned to write 14 stories and a column every week, to lay out a decent page, and to shrug at subpoenas.

A retired doctor mailed my column back to me each week, dripping with comments. Over sandwiches (my treat), he persuaded me that small communities are more vulnerable than large media markets, and that a town’s only local news source cannot tolerate shabby or complacent reporting.

I thanked him years later, after I won my first award from the N.C. Press Association. The winning entry was a seven-part series that took months of research, most of it off the clock. I wrote it during my Christmas vacation.

The animal shelter in Union County, N.C., gassed thousands of animals each year, so the story was about animal overpopulation and methods of euthanasia.

The activists who opposed the chamber were banking industry transplants from the northeast. The county officials who supported it were rural Southerners whose families had lived in the area for centuries, so I wrote about class and regionalism, too.

I wrote about how veterinarians who write the state’s animal control statutes also profit by designing gas chambers. I wrote about no-kill shelters, insurance liability and tax dollars.

It was a sprawling story, a rabbit hole for research, and I fought to shape its complexities into a faithful, nuanced account.

After the series ran, Union County’s commissioners finally agreed to pay for a low-cost spay-neuter suite at the shelter, and credited the series for their decision to act.

I was proud, and glad, and unaware that coming layoffs and budget cuts would strain our newsroom so that even off-the-books work on a series would be an indulgence.

It’s hard to explain to readers, but journalists understand: It takes effort to ask the right question, to cultivate subject-matter expertise, to write a story that surprises, inspires or provokes.

I work in a building designed to house 100 reporters and editors. The newsroom, omitting sports and photography, has nine reporters and three editors to cover the 504,357 people in Durham and Chapel Hill. The tide is against us, thanks to a business model that is driven by the value of advertising, rather than the value of news coverage.

We have to stop bleeding, not just ad revenue or free online content, but people. Strong, public-spirited journalists are fleeing, or have fled. The good reporters who aren’t laid off are leaving because the newsroom has to ask them – us – to do slap-together, hurry-up work that saps our pride and relevance.

I know it’s not quite so dire in every corner of the industry, but last year I took just five days of vacation and canceled plans for oral surgery, not (just) because I am a junkie for my job.

On an ordinary day I write a local editorial, edit our op-ed section – and also schedule metro photo assignments, coach reporters through small crises, do a final check of the pages at midnight before they go to press, write staff reports about late-breaking crime and show up to represent the paper at events. I also am the editor of our thrice-weekly Chapel Hill paper. I manage its interns, two reporters and $7,740 annual budget for freelance pieces.

We have stripped the machine of all of its excess weight. The only parts left are necessary, and we have no time for reflection or creative destruction. If anything will kill us, that’s it.

When I asked my publisher for a leave of absence for this fellowship, he took two days to think about it, then apologized as he refused. With no one to cover, the paper would have to hire and train a contractor to cover my job. By the time he or she got up to speed, I’d be back.

I can’t blame him, but I don’t think long-form, local journalism can move forward without risks. So I am applying for your fellowship without a safety net. I intend to return to daily news, but I understand that there might not be a job when I want one.

If there isn’t, my goal is to make one. I need to spend nine months thinking about journalism instead of practicing it. I know that our value is in unique content, but I don’t know how we can balance the costs of a newsroom against what people will pay. Will we all be freelance writers one day, with a business model along the lines of Byliner or Atavist? Should newsrooms operate as non-profits? Are public radio affiliates a better model than a national project like ProPublica? In 2008, Carol Guensburg postulated that national non-profit policy groups would be the new hope for high-quality reporting. That’s fine for policy issues, but how do we make it work for Forest City, N.C., or Pocatello, Idaho? I want to think about it as the practical problem that it is.

When daily print journalists can’t tend the public interest, we’re perpetuating a dangerous myth. The newspaper can’t be a “Beware of the Dog” sign. We have to be the dog, with teeth, a fierce bark and a relentless desire to dig.

That’s why I want this fellowship enough to risk job security. I can put this fellowship year to excellent use. I hope you will give me the chance. I am ready, and I don’t think community journalism can go on losing people who love it and practice it as I do.

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